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Peeling back the Layers

The Sensible Flutist: Peeling back the Layers

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Peeling back the Layers

Since I began seriously playing again, I have struggled with performance anxiety in ways that I don't recall ever experiencing. I have read books, talked to my teachers, and sought multiple performance opportunities in order to practice the skill of performing.

But I still feel like I fail. Why?

Interestingly enough, I had an epiphany sitting in my car listening to the radio. P!nk's song, "F'in Perfect," was on and I really started listening to the lyrics. All of a sudden, I realized that the negative performance experiences I had as a child are still affecting me emotionally and psychologically.

On a personal level, you can hide behind a shell of yourself. As a musician and an artist, you must lose that shell. Losing it can induce anxiety and self-doubt. There are different types of performance anxiety as listed in my colleague Marion Harrington's article; however, when I read these, I found that I couldn't exactly define how I suffer.

I began my musical journey as a singer. As a kid, I sang all the time. I would sneak into my brother's room, play a record, and sing along. If I didn't know the words, I made them up (I especially remember "La Bamba").

As I got older, I began singing in public. I could easily get up and sing in front of a church full of people. I was singing because I loved it, and I didn't have any preconceived notions about what I was supposed to do. I didn't start developing preconceived notions until I began entering talent shows at school.

I grew up in rural Southwest Virginia which is very religious. I sang anything my mom could find a taped accompaniment for, which was usually gospel or Christian contemporary music. And that's what I sang for my talent shows. The rejection that I remember most is a school assembly that I sang for. I don't remember the song, but I do remember looking up into the bleachers and seeing a boy mocking me.

I never tied this experience to my flute playing, but I think that it is a factor in how I deal with my anxiety. As I got older, I began burying more of my true self in order to fit in as most of us do. I have an "old soul," and I had only a few close friends. Because I find myself caught in the middle between those my own age and those older than me who I'm closer to in maturity, I have built layers of walls to protect myself from getting hurt in relationships with others.

We all build walls. Breaking them down in order to perform without fear is perhaps the most difficult part of our job.

Ultimately, this realization peeled back one more layer of my psyche to figure out exactly why I get anxious when I perform. My ease as a singer and a natural performer has evolved into a nervous adrenaline rush that affects my entire performance. It has struck at the beginning, in the middle, and sporadically.

How do I start to let go and enjoy the music?

My most recent post (Opening the Heartspace) is a step in the right direction. I actually started writing this post several months ago, but I've been letting it simmer. There was something there that although realizing that my childhood fears have followed me into adulthood, it doesn't explain everything.

There's something more. Perfectionism.

When we're children, we don't try to be perfect. We are able to perform without expectations or pressure. We sing/play/dance simply because we love to do it. Somewhere along the way, we learn that this isn't good enough. We must be perfect. We must please others. And when someone laughs at or mocks you, then you begin avoiding that which used to give you so much joy.

My experiences make me who I am today and I know who I am as a person, but the more I can break down the walls that I have built around myself to protect myself, the more true artistry will emerge in my teaching and on stage.

Here are some resources to help you overcome the "lizard brain" (as Seth Godin puts it):

Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity

Seth Godin's Linchpin

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At July 29, 2011 at 9:35 AM , Blogger Jeffri Harre said...

Sometimes you just need to lock your inner perfectionist in the basement. I'm rediscovering the creativity I had when I was younger by doing that. There have been times when the things I think are pretty flawed turn out to be those that I get the most posititive feedback about.

At July 30, 2011 at 10:48 AM , Anonymous Bill Plake said...

What I wonderful post! I'm new to this blog, and this was the first post I read. The idea of perfectionism is (in my opinion) nothing more than a human construct that keeps us from expressing ourselves freely and authentically. As you mentioned, when you we're a child, you sang with no concept of aiming for were simply enjoying the gift of song. I believe (as I think you do) that this capacity to express ourselves in that childlike manner (we "play" music, after all) can be rediscovered. It sounds like you're on that journey. Best wishes to you!

At July 31, 2011 at 11:45 AM , Anonymous Alexis - Sensible Flutist said...

Many thanks for commenting! After denying for years that I'm a perfectionist (but being a horrible procrastinator, the main symptom!), finally allowing myself to accept that label has helped me pushed past some barriers. I'm thankful to have a place to record my thoughts, as my thinking shifts and I'm appreciative to get feedback.


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